Traversing Schiehallion, Scotland’s Magical Mountain

At 1,038 metres (3,547′) Schiehallion isn’t especially close to Ben Nevis in height, but it is certainly one of the most iconic Munros. The distinctive, near-symmetrical profile of the mountain attracts hikers from both home and away looking to experience the great outdoors, and it’s a great choice for first time Munro baggers.

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The view from the western end of Schiehallion, looking along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. In clear conditions, it’s possible to pick out Ben Nevis.

Schiehallion

In the heart of Highland Perthshire, close to the very centre of Scotland, Schiehallion has the reputation of being both one of the most mysterious of Scotland’s mountains, and the most measured. The name Sidh Chailleann translates from Scots Gaelic as “the fairy hill of the Caledonians”, and it’s not difficult to find traces of folklore and superstition on the slopes of Shiehallion.

Reach the summit on a summer evening, and you’ll be enchanted by views of Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch stretching out towards the vast blanket of Rannoch Moor in the gloaming. Descending through the dusk you’ll catch mysterious sounds reverberating across the hillside: secret whisperings of the wee folk, or magical drumming snipe and roding woodcock?

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The first glimpse of Schiehallion appearing through the trees on the road from Loch Rannoch.

Planning my route

I was taking part in the 2019 TGO Challenge, a coast-to-coast crossing of Scotland on foot, and wanted to include a few mountains on my route from west to east. As it happened, dropping a few planning pins into my ViewRanger map put one close to the peak. After a few days of low-level walking, I reckoned I’d be limber enough to take on the mountain and make a west-to-east traverse of Schiehallion.

From the east and west the peak looks like a perfect pyramid; from north and south, a long whaleback ridge with a more gentle rise to the top. It stands in isolation, easily picked out on the skyline ahead of me as I left Glencoe and crossed Rannoch Moor.

Schiehallion Traverse

  • Start Point: East Tempar Farm*
  • Finish Point: Braes of Foss
  • Distance: 10km
  • Hiking time: 4 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Map: OS Explorer OL49

*Note: There is nowhere to leave a vehicle at East Tempar. Parking is available at Braes of Foss carpark (approx. 7km on the road) or in Kinloch Rannoch (approx. 3.5km on the road). I walked along the road from Kilvrecht Campsite, approximately 9km.

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Go slow, baby lambs. Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Sign on the roadside at East Tempar.

The glorious May weather had stayed another day, so despite not being in any particular rush to get underway, I’d been up since 6am with the sunshine, packed my tent (shaking off drifts of tree pollen that had accumulated through the previous evening), loaded up with drinking water, and hit the road to get to my starting point for 9am. Find a route map on my ViewRanger.

From East Tempar Farm a hill track rises gently through sheep pasture, gaining around 350m in a little over two and a half kilometres, to the base of the towering west flank of the mountain. The track continues on to the tumbledown shielings at the col at the head of Gleann Mor, the dale between Schiehallion and the Can Mairg hills to the south.

Gleann Mor is reputedly just as magical as the mountain that looms above. According to legend, the fairies of Schiehallion make their home in Uamh Tom a’Mhor-fhir, a cave in the upper reaches of the glen, and the doors leading into Elfhame (fairyland) marked by tussocks of white heather.

There might be little real evidence of fairies on Schiehallion, but the region wears its history close to the surface. Old shielings are a reminder of the traditional cattle grazing way of life in highland glens, and traces of hut circles and ancient cup-and-ring marked rocks a connection to a more distant and mysterious past.

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Hillside haggis tracks in the heather.

My route led upwards, over rough ground cut only by deer tracks contouring the slope. I snapped a couple of quick pictures, along with some of some grouse droppings, to perpetuate the haggis myth with which we were teasing my French and Romanian crewmates. Haggis is “…un cochon d’Inde écossais indigène. C’est vrai.” True fact.

There wasn’t a breath of wind when I reached the first boulder field, a patch of fractured quartzite exposed amongst the heather tussocks and spongy lichens. Higher above, the first false summit of my climb marked the point where the vegetation began to yield to the rock, with just sparse turf between the boulders.

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The summit. Or is it?

The Schiehallion Experiment

The splendid isolation and arresting symmetry of Schiehallion caught the attention of the Royal Society as a place to observe the “attraction of mountains”. In the summer of 1774, Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskylene and surveyor and mathematician Charles Hutton gathered data on the tiny deflection of a pendulum against the position of the stars, revealing the gravitational pull of the mountain.

Between astronomical observations and a survey of Schiehallion’s shape and composition, the experiment provided evidence of Newton’s theory of gravitation, and of the density and shape of the entire planet. During the development of the experiment, Hutton pioneered the concept of contour lines to show relief in cartography, helping me greatly with my TGO challenge route planning.

The Schiehallion experiment is commemorated by a plaque at Braes of Foss, and the eagle-eyed can spot the footprints of Maskylene’s parallel observatories on the north and south flanks of the mountain.

The Summit

Into the boulder field proper, the true summit rose up behind the last false peak, identifiable this time by the small gathering of people on the rocky outcrop. Tucked into hollows on the northern side of boulders were tiny patches of snow, none larger than my backpack, holding on in the 20°C heat. I scrambled up the last six or seven metres to the top, and turned to take in the view that had been at my back during the climb.

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From the summit, I could see across the Tay Forest and Loch Tummel to the Beinn a’Ghlo in the east, south to Ben Lawers, and north to Ben Alder. But the view to the west was the best. The eye skims along the shining surface of Loch Rannoch into a golden-blue haze over Rannoch Moor. On the edge of visibility, I could just make out the Black Mount and Glencoe, where two days ago I’d caught my first glimpse of this peak.

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I took a long break to rehydrate, and devoured a packet of Tuc sandwich biscuits that were by now mostly cheese-flavoured dust. This won me the friendship of a springer spaniel called Saoirse, waiting with her dog-dad for the rest of the family to join them at the top. I hunted around and found the spiral carving in the rock. More likely a modern addition than ancient art, but still a reminder that for many the mountains are spiritual spaces.

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Descent

The route across the boulder field was indistinct, but the following the ridge easterly with the natural compass of the sun was moving in the right direction. Skipping over the loose rock in the boulder field for a couple of kilometres, trying unsuccessfully to pick my way along Saoirse’s chosen route, I found a worn track and reached the top of the path. The way down was much simpler than the way up, dropping down the flank of the mountain on a well-surfaced route.

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I reached the carpark at Braes of Foss in mid-afternoon, glad to be able to refill my water supply and find a spot of shade for a cuppa and spoonful of peanut butter. It had been another long, draining hike in the sun. I still had another few kilometres to go to reach the end of my planned route for the day, to the access road for Foss mine, where I was to meet my lift.

On the way round the road, I decided that the TGO Challenge could wait for another day, and rescheduled my rest day for the next morning. I’d take the chance to buy some sunblock, and just enjoy the shade for a while. It was a real treat to get into Pitlochry that evening, pick up a takeaway and some cold beers, and sit in the garden of my friend’s house celebrating reaching half-way across Scotland on the top of that magical mountain.

Schiehallion East Path

  • Start / Finish Point: Braes of Foss carpark (£2/full day)
  • Distance: 10km return
  • Hiking time: Usually between 3 and 4 hours (depending on how long you enjoy the view for!)
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate
  • Map: OS Explorer OL49

Most hikers visiting Schiehallion follow a different route to the one I took, starting and finishing in the carpark at Braes of Foss, and following the East Schiehallion path. In a rare case of mountain rescue, where the mountain itself was the casualty, the path was constructed by the John Muir Trust to manage erosion and protect delicate vegetation on the lower slopes of the mountain. Find a route map on my ViewRanger.

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A plaque commemorating the Schiehallion Experiment by Nevil Maskylene and Charles Hutton at Braes of Foss, with the mountain behind.

The route is clear and obvious, though there is no waymarking, tackling the east ridge of the mountain in zigzags that avoid expanses of bog but still gives hikers glimpses of wildflowers and bog plants. The area is also home to wildlife like red deer, black grouse, and ptarmigan.

After around 3.5km the path reaches the boulder field on the top of the ridge.  Here the route is undefined to the summit, crossing loose rocks and scree, so care and attention to navigation is needed over the final 2km, especially if visibility is reduced.

Incredibly, thanks to an initiative by the FieldFare Trust, the first third of the route has been approved as wheelchair-friendly, with the remainder of the route to the summit deemed accessible at an individual’s discretion, making Schiehallion the first wheelchair-accessible Munro in Scotland.

Descend by retracing your steps to the boulder field to the path, and return to the carpark.

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Starting to feel the power of the sun. Walking in the mountains needs preparation for all weather conditions.

What to wear for hiking in Scotland

Though the warm, windless conditions on the day of my hike suited shorts and a t-shirt, that’s not what I would usually recommend for a day in the Scottish mountains. The best clothes for hiking are thin, quick-drying layers, and well-fitting, supportive boots.

The temperature can be quite different once you reach the summit, and a good rule of thumb for planning is that for every 300 metres (1,000′) it will be around 2°C colder. On a windy day, this will feel even more.

Walking trousers are robust but breathable, and usually have good pockets for gadgets and snacks. Shorts will normally be ok in fine weather, but if you’re going to venture off the beaten path and bash through the heather it can be uncomfortable. Gaiters will help protect your trousers and keep them dry and clean. They also double up as a dry mat for sitting on the ground when you stop for breaks.

A waterproof jacket and pair of trousers are always a good idea in Scotland. Even if there’s no rain in the forecast, conditions can be unpredictable, and a waterproof layer can break the chill of the wind.

A fleece or light sweater will keep your core temperature toasty when you reach the top. A warm hat, buff and pair of gloves will be useful in most conditions, but don’t underestimate the sun. There’s no opportunity to escape into the shade on most Scottish mountains. A broad-brimmed hat and something covering your shoulders could be important in summer to prevent heat exhaustion.

What other equipment will you need?

  • A backpack to carry your gear (with a waterproof cover)
  • A map and compass (and GPS)
  • Walking poles – optional
  • A good supply of water and snacks.

Tips for solo hiking

  • Be prepared for the hike with the right clothing and equipment.
  • Plan your hike in advance, and work out the time you will need, factoring in breaks on the way.
  • Always take a map and compass, and know how to use them. Even if you use a GPS.
  • Tell someone where you are hiking, and remember to let them know once you’re back safe.
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30 of my favourite places in the British and Irish Isles

The archipelago of the British and Irish Isles, on the Atlantic fringe of Europe, is home to a wealth of vibrant communities, historic landmarks, and inspiring locations.  Not to mention the breath-taking views and the incredible diversity of landscapes over such a small geographical area.  There really is just so much to see in and around these islands.

From stark mountain summits and bleakly beautiful moors, to sweeping silver sand beaches and spectacular rocky coasts, from cityscapes that blend the futuristic and the historic, to picturesque villages and towns that tell our industrial story; I’m sharing this list of my  30 favourite places to visit in Britain, Ireland, and the Isle of Man.

As with all lists of favourite places, it’s highly subjective, influenced by the places I’ve visited over the years, often again and again, and the memories I’ve made there.  It’s very also much a list of current favourites, as there are so many places around these islands that I have yet to visit.  But I hope you enjoy my choices, and perhaps you’ll be inspired to visit some for yourselves.  Who’s for a road trip?  Or a sailing voyage?

1. Stromness, Orkney.  I have a thing for small coastal towns with lots of old boats and rusty, rotted fishing gear.  And I’m fascinated by the local connection to exploring the Arctic and the discovery of the Northwest Passage.

2. Ben Loyal, Caithness.  Its distinctive profile dominated landward views from our family favourite holiday destinations of Talmine and Scullomie, on the coast at the mouth of the Kyle of Tongue.

3. Oldshoremore, Sutherland.  A few miles further on the dead-end road from the fishing port of Kinlochbervie, a sweeping curve of pink-gold sand that collects Atlantic rollers.

4. An Sgùrr, Isle of Eigg.  A striking fin of basalt rock that rises from the island, making it seem like a rolling whaleback from the shore around Arisaig.

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Fishing from the stern of Irene, at anchor off Eigg in the summer dim.

5. Rannoch Moor and the Black Mount.  I’m sure a couple of hundred years ago, I’d be one of those “grand tour” travellers that became mesmerised by the mountains and have to be committed, insensible, to an Alpine sanitorium. I just can’t not look at the Black Mount.  Which is awkward if you’re walking in the opposite direction.

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Passing the Kingshouse on my way across the moor to Rannoch Station.

6. Glen Tanar, Royal Deeside.  The Cairngorms hold, in my opinion, some of the most stunning landscapes in the whole of the UK, and in late autumn are the place I want to be.  Gold, scarlet, bronze and deep green gloss the trees, and the light is magical.

7. Haughs of Benholm, Aberdeenshire. Home.

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On the edge of the North Sea, at the end of the garden.

8. Oban, Argyll.  Most visitors will pass straight through, getting off the train and onto one of the ferries.  But the town has plenty of character, and entertaining characters.  And plenty of old boats and rusty fishing gear.

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The view of Oban Bay and Kerrera from McCaig’s Tower.

9. Isle of Coll.  I only spent a few days here last summer, but this was one of those places that stole a little bit of my heart.  I want to live here one day.

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The stunning beach at Feall Bay, on the southern end of Coll.

10. Schiehallion, Perthshire.  The fairy hill has such a perfect pyramid profile from the west. Read more here.

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At the summit of Schiehallion.  On a clear day, I think you can see all the way across Scotland.

11. Corrie Fee, Angus.  A steep-sided bowl of rock at the head of Glen Clova in the Angus Glens, just below Mayar and Driesh, two of my first munros.

12. RRS Discovery, Dundee.  The place to where I can trace both my love of tall ship sailing and the history of polar exploration.  A favourite school trip destination.

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The rigging of RRS Discovery is a striking part of the Dundee skyline.

13. Tentsmuir, Fife.  A deep, dark pine forest, opening out onto a vast bright expanse of beach.  I’ve seen grey seals and red squirrels, vast white-tailed eagles and tiny coal tits, and one day, one of the 30,000 or so eider ducks I look at each winter will be a king eider.

14. Rathlin Island, Country Antrim.  Allegedly, the home of wise spiders that can give you advice for success in your endeavours.

15. Peel, Isle of Man.  A favourite port of the Viking longship Draken Harald Hårfagre.

16. Tynemouth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  The North Sea is “my” sea, and just as beautiful on a slaty-grey winter day as in the height of summer.  Plus Super Gran’s house is here.

17. Tryfan, Snowdonia.  A great snaggletooth of rock sticking out into the Ogwen Valley.

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18. Barmouth / Abermaw, Snowdonia.  As a teenager, we’d travel all the way from northeast Scotland to Snowdonia for an Air Cadet adventure training camp, making Barmouth seem extremely exotic and exciting.

19. Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford.  A collection of ethnographical treasures collected from around the globe; a fascinating introduction to world cultures.  I was a volunteer here when I first moved to England.

20. Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge.  A fascinating place, telling the story of polar exploration from the early days, through to cutting edge research in glaciology and climate science.  I’ve been lucky to spend a few days working here before deploying to Antarctica.

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Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the south pole

21. Ashridge Estate, Hertfordshire.  Practically on my doorstep for a while, this is a favourite location for woodland walks, trail runs, and wild camps.

22. Maritime Greenwich.  My favourite part of London, and the place that I think tells most about the history of Britain and its place in the world.

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The distinctive rigging of Cutty Sark on the Greenwich riverside.

23. Stackpole and Barafundle Bay, Pembrokeshire.  A beautiful corner of West Wales.

24. Lundy, Bristol Channel.  Just one night on anchor, surrounded by swirling clouds of thousands of Manx shearwaters looking for an overnight roost.

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At night the sky filled with life as shearwaters came back to the cliffs to roost.

25. Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth.  I’m a bit too young to remember the raising of Mary Rose, but I think the restoration featured often on Blue Peter.  Watching it led me to the realisation that we can read the stories of people who have gone before us through the traces they leave behind, and it was exciting to finally visit.

26. Lymington, Hampshire.  The walk along the old sea walls between Lymington and Keyhaven is an old favourite.

27. Newtown Creek, Isle of Wight.  Watching the sunrise on frosty winter mornings with a coffee, listening to the contented purring of brent geese. Discover more here.

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A liminal space where saltmarsh, mudflat, and shingle banks,  meet the sea and the sky.

28. Swanage pier, Dorset.  More accurately, the underside of Swanage pier; one of my favourite coastal dives in the UK, and where I saw a John Dory swimming for the first time.

29. Helford River, Cornwall.  I’ve only arrived in the river by night while under sail.  Living my best Poldark smuggler life.

30. Newlyn, Cornwall.  While not as picturesque as nearby villages like Mousehole or Porthleven, as a working fishing port, Newlyn is full of characters and there’s always a story to listen to in the Swordfish pub.

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Irene of Bridgwater arriving into Newlyn harbour under full sail.  Can you spot me on the quayside taking mooring lines?  Photo credit: Newlyn NCI
Are any of these places in your British and Irish Isles top 10?
Tell me what makes your list in the comments below.

 

Three Winter Walks on the Isle of Wight

I’ve been fortunate to spend a few years living and working on the Isle of Wight, and covering some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the south of England as a Wildlife Ranger.  As days grow shorter and temperatures grow colder, the island’s beaches, creeks, and estuaries seem to look even more beautiful, whatever the weather, and become havens for thousands of overwintering birds.  Without the numbers of tourists that visit in summer, exploring the Isle of Wight in winter often means have beautiful coastal walks all to yourself.

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Western Yar Estuary

  • Route length: 7km (4.5 miles) circular route, with the possibility of an extension to make 11km (7 miles)
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Start / Finish: Yarmouth

The Western Yar is a snapshot of the geological past of southern England, a remnant of a much larger river rising from the chalk downland that once stretched from the Needles, at the tip of the Isle of Wight, all the way to Old Harry Rocks on the Dorset coast.  Now, a small stream quickly becomes a vast tidal estuary, edged with mudflats and saltmarshes that support hundreds of waders and wildfowl.

Find details of this circular walk from Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, including a route map, on my ViewRanger.

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The riverside path from the harbour passes the old mill and joins the old railway line that once linked Freshwater and Yarmouth to Newport.  Listen for the whistles and whoops of teal and wigeon, and the piping calls of oystercatchers from the estuary mud.  The walking is pleasant and easy, with small birds flitting between the hedgerows lining the trail.  The copse further on is a good spot to look for red squirrels scampering overhead.

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The walk can be extended from the Causeway towards the narrow ridge of chalk downs, and the coast known as the Back of the Wight.  A short distance on footpaths and minor roads takes you past Afton Marsh Nature Reserve towards the golf course.  To your left, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Old Military Road, with the crumbling coastline below, and to your right, it dips down to Freshwater Bay before rising sharply toward Tennyson Down.

Rather than retrace your footsteps, a winding path leads down the side of some houses, alongside the early stages of the river Yar, passing through thick reedbeds back to the Causeway crossroads.

From the Causeway, turn left and find the footpath that runs between the Red Lion pub and All Saints Church.  The path leads northwards, away from the edge of the estuary, across rolling farmland and through the woods.  Look out for views across the Solent to the New Forest as you leave the woodland behind.

Cross the swing bridge and finish the walk back in Yarmouth by the harbour.  Pop into PO41, one of my favourite spots on the island for coffee and home-made cake to finish the day.

Newtown Creek

  • Route length: 5km (3 miles)
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Start / Finish: Newtown National Trust Visitor Centre

One of the most beautiful and historic parts of the Isle of Wight, Newtown was once a thriving medieval port, the most important on the island, with a bustling saltworks and several streets of houses.  But after centuries of ebb and flow, Newtown Creek is now a quiet backwater that, in winter, bustles only with birdlife.  In the 1960s plans to locate a nuclear power station here were protested by the local community, and led to the creation of Newtown Harbour National Nature Reserve.

Find details of this walk around the Isle of Wight’s finest nature reserve, including a route map, on my ViewRanger.

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From the National Trust carpark, cross a minor road and follow the route of the medieval street eastwards.  The track opens out into a beautiful area of pasture, with several ancient oak trees (and the entrance to the Upside Down), which is grazed by heritage cattle at certain times of the year.

Leave the field at the far side, turn right then follow the road for around 200m to enter Walter’s Copse, a pocket-sized wood with both ancient woodland and rotational coppice management, that edges onto the saltmarsh of the creek.  Follow the trail through the wood and back to the road.  Turn left, then right, to retrace your route to the Visitor Centre.

Continue on the road past the church, then take the track at Marsh Farm to reach the Mercia Seabrook hide.  National Trust volunteers will open the hide on selected days during the winter, and lead guided walks to show visitors the spectacular winter birdlife; look for hundreds of golden plovers, diminutive dunlins, and a variety of ducks.  Grey seals often lounge on the shingle spit on the far side of the creek.

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Cross the field to reach the wooden boardwalk leading to the old boathouse, which has views across the creek and out to the Solent beyond.  A path leads around the edge of the historic salt pools, and back to the hedgerow-lined meadow.  On a crisp winter morning, with the purring sound of brent geese filling the air, it’s a pretty magical place to visit.

Brading Marshes and Bembridge Mill

  • Route length: 10km (6.2 miles)
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Start / Finish: Brading

Brading was once a busy fishing port, and the coastal village of Bembridge, just a couple of small farms on an isolated peninsula.  Land reclamation along the estuary of the Eastern Yar* over 120 years ago moved the coastline downstream several miles, creating a sheltered haven between Bembridge and St Helens.

Find details of this walk at one of the best birding sites on the Isle of Wight, including a route map, on my ViewRanger.

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From Brading, follow the road towards the RSPB reserve, then bear left onto Laundry Lane.  This raised track looks over into marshes and scrapes that fill with waders and wildfowl through the winter.  At the end of the lane, bear right on the edge of the main road into St Helens village.

Head downhill from St Helens village green to the embankment, then bear right onto the footpath through the edge of the RSPB reserve.  The trail runs alongside a series of saline lagoons, attracting shorebirds seeking refuge over the high tide in the harbour.

From the Tollgate, which has great views across the harbour to the area of sand dunes known as the Duver, follow the road up through the pretty village of Bembridge.  Take the road on the right after the church and the library, leading out of the village towards Bembridge Mill.

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Picturesque Bembridge Mill is the only surviving windmill on the island, falling out of use in the early 20th century and used as a Home Guard lookout during WWII, before being restored to working condition by the National Trust.

Enjoy the views before heading downhill from the windmill, following the line of the old sea wall, across the edge of Bembridge Airfield, and into Centurion’s Copse, a red squirrel hot spot.  Bear right, and pass through the RSPB reserve.  The ditches and sluices allow for careful control of water levels to manage one of the most important wetland areas in southern England.

At the end of the old sea wall, you’ll meet the end of Laundry Lane, and be able to retrace your steps back into Brading.  Pop into the Auctioneer for a pot of tea and a huge wedge of cake, and even a browse through the latest selection of antiques and curios on display.

*The Isle of Wight has three large-ish rivers.  Two of them are called the Yar.  The story is that no islanders ever travelled the vast distances from Bembridge to Yarmouth (about 45 minutes drive now), or the opposite direction, so the lack of imagination in naming never really mattered.

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Tips to watch wildlife responsibly in winter:

  • Avoid causing disturbance to birds feeding or resting in coastal areas.
  • Bring binoculars for a good view without getting too close.
  • If the birds become alert and stop feeding on mudflats and saltmarsh, move further away and allow them to settle down.
  • Stick to paths and marked routes where they exist, and avoid emerging suddenly onto saltmarshes and creeks.
  • Stop for a while on your walk, or move slowly, to see what emerges from nearby hedgerows or reedbeds
  • Listen to the sounds; they might reveal something you would otherwise miss.
  • Always follow guidance on signs on sites.

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What to look out for:

Birds: dark-bellied brent geese; greylag geese; golden plovers; curlews; oystercatchers; black-tailed godwits; lapwings; dunlin; pintail; teal; widgeon; shelducks; kingfishers; peregrine falcons; rooks; yellowhammers;  short-eared owls; little egrets; spoonbills; long-tailed tits; goldcrests; fieldfares; redwings; ravens.

Other creatures: Hebridean sheep; belted Galloway cattle; red squirrels; grey seals.

Nature: Ancient oak trees; coppice hazel and the first catkins; an abundance of fungi and lichen; towering reedmace and phragmites; brambles; spindle berries; gorse flowers.

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What I’ve loved this season: Autumn 2019

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

I finished working on Irene in early September, after a beautiful few days sailing around Falmouth, visiting Charlestown, St. Mawes and the Helford River, and headed up to Cambridge for a week of training with the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.  It was an intense week, with a lot of information to take in, but an exhilarating experience as we covered a lot of the practical and theoretical stuff necessary for living and working in Antarctica.

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A sunrise start on the Helford River near Falmouth in Cornwall.

The training week was followed up by a lot of online courses and independent research.  I’ll write more about the training and preparation I’ve undertaken for my role at the Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy soon, but I think nothing will actually come close to the experience of arriving and setting foot on the island for the first time.

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Windswept and interesting! With Wendy Searle, Lucy Hawthorne, Lauren Own and Jo Symonowski on Pen y Fan.

At the end of September I  headed to the Brecon Beacons, to meet a group of fantastic women and do something a bit unusual; hike up Pen y Fan wearing a corset, bloomers and full tweed skirts.  You can read more about our Great Corset Caper here, and the good cause that inspired us, My Great Escape here.

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Autumn in Glen Tanar on Royal Deeside.
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The view towards Mount Keen and the mounth from Glen Tanar.
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Autumn leaves about to fall on a frost nipped morning.

Working remotely gave me the chance to take a few weeks up in Scotland, and catch up with friends and family in October.  I had a couple of days in Newtonmore, for a reunion with TGO Challengers and some walks around the central Cairngorms, before heading over to the Aberdeenshire coast.  Between researching and writing, I’ve also been for walks along the coast, on Deeside and through the Angus Glens.  I also squeezed in a weekend break in Dundee with my sister and cousin.

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Looking down towards Ryvoan bothy and over towards Abernethy Forest in the Cairngorms.
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By the dark waters of Loch Garten in Abernethy Forest, listening to the belling

Autumn is my favourite time of year, and when I think Scotland looks at its best.  Trees put on a show with golden, copper and scarlet leaves, against the dark pines and yellow bracken.  On a damp day in Abernethy, red pine needles on the forest floor glow and blaeberry leaves sparkle, fungi tucked underneath like pale wax candles.  By the pewter sea streaked with white, I watched lapwings wheeling over the shore and eider ducks riding the swell.  Every morning, as the sun rose later and later, started with the sound of skeins of wintering geese overhead.

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The South Aberdeenshire coastal path approaching the Haughs of Benholm.  Watch out for hares in the long grass just after crossing the bridge.
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A wild and windy day on the North Sea coast.

I was very excited to spot a goshawk perching on a fence post not far from home; an identification that was made so much easier as a buzzard (the usual occupant of local fences) was sat a few posts down on the opposite side of the road.  It was heartening to see, as raptors have been persecuted badly in the region in the recent past.

This season’s update was written a little earlier than it’s been posted here, as November sees me travelling south.  I’ll fly from London to Buenos Aires, then onward to Ushuaia, where I’ll join a cruise ship for a lift into Port Lockroy.  All things going well, which means with fine weather and good sea ice conditions, our team will be settled on the island by the middle of the month, with the Penguin Post Office open for business.

 

My Autumn love list

Books: The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an account of observing emperor penguins and recovering the first eggs for scientific study on the Terra Nova expedition.  The team faced temperatures of -40C (-40F) and day-round darkness, returning to their base at Cape Evans barely alive.  Cherry’s two colleagues, Dr Wilson and “Birdie” Bowers, would later perish on the return from the pole on Scott’s ill-fated expedition.

Films: Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary about the people working in Antarctica by Werner Herzog.  Though he states this isn’t a film about “fluffy penguins”, there’s an especially heart-wrenching moment with an Adelie penguin, which friends who have seen it made sure to remind me of.  They also made sure that I’d seen The Thing.

They’re the kind of friends you need.

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Clothing:  My current favourite thing is a grey merino wool sweater, lightweight enough for layering or wearing alone on warmer autumn days.  It will be a useful midlayer to take to Antarctica with me.

I’ve been issued with several items of branded kit by UKAHT supplied by Rab, including the microlight Alpine down jacket.  I’ve tested it out in the bracing wind blowing off the North Sea around my folk’s house, and on frosty morning walks in the Cairngorms.  I’m quite confident that it will serve me well down south.

Equipment:  While I was home my dad gave me a solid fuel handwarmer that he used to take out fishing, which used to belong to my granda.  It’s going straight into my kit bag to come with me to Antarctica.

And after a couple of weeks of consideration, I also picked up new sunglasses, a pair of Cebe Summits.  The category 4 level UV protection will be essential with light reflecting off snow and water in Antarctica, though it makes them too dark for use at the moment.

Food:  As I’ve been back home in Aberdeenshire for a few weeks, I’ve been stuffing myself with butteries for breakfast.  Also known as rowies if you’re from the city rather than the shire, these are flattened, crusty bread rolls traditionally made for fisherman to take to sea.  Ideally, they should be served warm, spread with butter and jam on the flat side.  Rhubarb and ginger jam is my favourite.

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The Nissen hut at Port Lockroy, my home for the next four months. Photo credit: UKAHT.

What’s Next?

Thanks for following along with my journey on These Vagabond Shoes.

I’m about to disappear off the virtual world for a few months, to live at the end of the real world in Antarctica.  While I won’t be able to keep you up to date with my adventures in real-time, there are a few things I’ve scheduled on Twitter and Facebook.  and in the blog to fill in the time until I return.  Looking forward to seeing you on the other side (with an unbelievable number of penguin pictures)!

Read about my summer adventures here.
I’d love to hear what you’ve been up to this autumn, or any plans you have for the winter ahead.
Let me know in the comments below.

 

A mysterious walk to the Rollright Stones

Legend claims that these enigmatic standing stones on the edge of the Cotswolds are a local chieftain and his band of warriors, petrified by a powerful witch, fated to forever stand watch from their lofty location.  However, this megalithic complex, which spans more than 2,000 years of Neolithic and Bronze Age development, has more mysteries for you to discover.

rollright_1_smNatural chunks of golden Cotswold limestone, the characteristic stone used in local buildings, their great age is evident in their pitted and weathered, and lichen-spattered surfaces.  The standing stones known as the Whispering Knights are earliest, dating from between 3,800 and 3,500 BCE, the early Neolithic period.  The King’s Men stone circle is late Neolithic, around 2,500 BCE, and the single King Stone is from the Bronze Age, approximately 1,500 BCE.

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The Rollright Stones have been reported on throughout recorded history, attracting visitors from the local area and further afield.  Antiquarian William Stukeley, who pioneered the scholarly investigation of Stonehenge and Avebury, made early investigations in the mid-18th century, leading to their eventual protection as one of the earliest Scheduled Ancient Monuments in England.

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The Whispering Knights

The Whispering Knights are the easternmost stones, so named as their position suggests a group leaning in conspiratorially, plotting against the one who would be king, and the oldest of the three formations at Rollright.  It’s believed that they are a “portal dolmen”, a burial chamber that would have originally looked like a stone table (like something from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe), and the entrance to an otherworldly realm.

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Archaeological exploration of the chamber inside the stones uncovered the disarticulated bones of several individuals, along with pottery from early Neolithic, Beaker and Bronze Age cultures, suggesting it was one of the earliest such monuments in Ancient Britain, and was in use over many centuries.

The King’s Men

The closely-spaced stones known as the King’s Men mark a ceremonial circle around 33 metres in diameter, and are reputedly uncountable.  If you make three circuits of the stone, counting the same number every time, you’re entitled to wish for your heart’s desire.

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There may have once been as many as one hundred, standing shoulder to shoulder in a near-perfect circle, with two stones on the outside marking an entrance portal opposite the tallest stone.

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The design of the stone circle is similar to others in the Lake District and in Ireland, and may have been constructed by people from those areas for their ceremonial gatherings.

The King Stone

Standing alone, just below the crest of a low rise, the King Stone is thought to have been erected around 1500 BCE to mark a Bronze Age burial ground.  Excavations in the 1980s revealed the remains of wooden posts marking the locations of human cremations in the surrounding land.

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The unusual shape of the stone is only partially due to erosion of the limestone.  Souvenir-hunters and superstitious cattle drovers en-route to the mart in Banbury would chip off fragments as lucky charms against evil.

The Witch and the King

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According to folklore, the notorious witch, Mother Shipton, accosted a petty king out riding with his army on the edge of the escarpment, tempting him with the promise of greatness.

Seven long strides thou shalt take, says she
And if Long Compton thou canst see,
King of England thou shalt be!

The fighting men gathered in a circle to await the outcome of the challenge, while the knights gathered in close counsel.  But the foolhardy chieftain, blinded by thoughts of king hereafter, took seven long strides, stopping just short of a low rise on the edge of the hill to the cacking of the witch.

As Long Compton thou canst not see, King of England thou shalt not be!
Rise up stick and stand still stone, For King of England thou shalt be none;
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be, And I myself an elder tree!

It didn’t sound like that great a deal for old Mother Shipton; through possibly preferable for a witch to being tortured, burned, or drowned.  In later years the stones gained a reputation for fortune-telling; to dance naked through the stone circle and whisper to the old king would reveal the identity of your one true love.

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Walk: The Rollright Stones from Long Compton

  • Route length: 13km (8 miles) circular route
  • Ascent: 245 metres (800′)
  • Approximate hiking time: 4 hours
  • Difficulty: moderate

The route starts in the Warwickshire village of Long Compton, by the Red Lion pub, heading east on farm tracks and bridleways, before ascending the escarpment to Great Rollright.  On the edge of the village, the route joins a waymarked long-distance trail known as the D’Arcy Dalton Way, named for a local rights-of-way campaigner, to follow the ridge of the escarpment westwards.

After passing through woodland, you’ll see the Rollright Stones to your right.  From this direction you’ll approach the Whispering Knights first, followed by the King’s Men, and finally the King Stone on the far side of the road.  Retrace your steps to the D’Arcy Dalton Way, and continue on to the picturesque hamlet of Little Rollright.

This entire hamlet, once owned by one of the Oxford University colleges, was sold a few years ago; the manor house, rectory, five cottages, and a handful of farm buildings and barns were listed for a cool £18 million.  One of the new residents is an award-winning cheesemaker, who produces a lovely-sounding, squidgy, stinky, reblochon-like cheese that I need to track down.

From Little Rollright head northwards following the waymarked Shakespeare’s Way long-distance trail, descending the escarpment back towards Long Compton.

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Short sections of the route follow minor roads without a footpath, so care must be taken especially in late autumn afternoons.  The sections on footpaths and bridleways can be muddy, and as they cross through farmland, be aware of grazing livestock, particularly if you’re walking with a dog.

Find details of this walk, including a route map, on ViewRanger.

An alternative circular route to the stones starts and finishes in the village of Salford, near Chipping Norton, around 8km (5 miles) and ascending over a more gentle gradient.  Parking is also provided on the roadside adjacent to the Stones if you prefer not to walk; the monuments are all within 500m of each other.

The Cotswolds are England’s largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), stretching across Gloucestershire, west Oxfordshire and south-west Warwickshire.  The rolling hills lie between the river valleys of the Thames and the Severn, with an abundance of quaint towns and villages of golden stone houses nestled into their folds.  The Rollright Stones are located on the Cotswold Edge, an escarpment on the northern edge of the hills, to the north of Chipping Norton.

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Photo Journal: Machair Wildflowers on the Isle of Coll

The island of Coll is breathtakingly beautiful.  The sort of place where you leave a little piece of your heart behind when you finally bring yourself to leave.

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The sweeping arc of Feall Bay, on the southwestern coast of Coll
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The beaches of Feall and Crossapol are separated by a fixed dune system rising over 50 metres in places, including a large swathe of flower-rich machair

The turquoise waters of the Sea of the Hebrides wash up on sweeping silver-white beaches backed by lofty, marram-clad dunes, reaching over 50 metres high behind the strand at Feall.  Between the coastal bents and the bogs and bare rock inland, is a rare place; machair, a habitat unique to the Hebrides, the fringes of northwestern Scotland, and western coast of Ireland.

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I started to rue not paying attention when being taught the names of wildflowers by my Granny.  But I do know this is silverweed, and prefers damp spots close to the shore.
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I think this dandelion-like flower is a type of hawkweed.
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Sea pink, also known as thrift, and stonecrop clings to niches in the bare rock.
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Wild thyme and ladies bedstraw form a dense, deeply-scented carpet on the machair.

In her 2018 book Wilding, Isabella Tree recounts several alarming statistics about the state of nature across the British and Irish Isles, including the fact that around ninety per cent of wildflower meadows have been lost since the Second World War.  This has had a devastating knock-on effect on invertebrate fauna, and the birds which depend on them.

The machair of the Western Isles is a last stronghold, lavish with wildflowers through the spring and summer.  Common species like red and white clover, buttercups, daisies, wild thyme, ladies bedstraw, and bird’s foot trefoil carpet the pasture, with a scattering of rarer species like the Hebridean spotted orchid and Heath orchid.  The area around Hough Bay is a hotspot for bloody cranesbill.

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A blanket of daisies and buttercups cover the machair next to the RSPB reserve carpark.
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Machair wildflowers are vital for rare bumblebees, such as the great yellow bumblebee, once common across the British and Irish Isles, and now restricted to a few areas in the Hebrides.
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The machair was traditionally used for summer livestock grazing and hay cutting.  It would have been exactly like the scything scenes in Poldark.
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The size of that handsome lad.  He’s so tiny and cute.
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The island of Coll, and neighbouring Tiree, are reputed to have the highest number of sunshine hours anywhere in Scotland.
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I think this might be saxifrage, or maybe eyebright.  I do have a very good flora guide (Warne, The Wild Flower Key), but I’m just not very good at using it.
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There are three or four different species of orchid found on Coll and Tiree.

Sea pinks (thrift) and stonecrop find refuge among the rocks. Ragged robin, meadowsweet, and beds of yellow flag (iris) define wetter areas, and provide the preferred hiding spots for crackling, croaking corncrakes, often heard but rarely seen on their summer sojourn from southern Africa.

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I’m pretty sure that these pictures are all of the same kind of orchid.
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They are either the Hebridean spotted orchid or the heath spotted orchid, though they can hybridise.  I also saw early march orchids, but my photo was rubbish.
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A green-veined white caterpillar chomping on a creeping willow.
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Hay meadows in the in-bye can conceal corncrakes; the crackling calls that give them their scientific name, Crex crex, the only clue to their presence

The drowsy, blossom-sweet scent of the machair charges the air on a warm day in June, enough that passing ships catch a draught on the breeze, like a half-remembered afternoon from childhood.  From the beginning of May to midsummer, the machair belongs to the skylarks, singing more than 18 hours a day, from dawn to dusk, and rare bees, bumbling through the flowers, honey-drunk on nectar.

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The sandy machair merges into the blackland of peat moors and bogs, and the plant community changes.
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Bell heather, ling, crowberry, bog cotton, and even some rare alpine species are found on the higher ground.
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8 Great Day Hikes in Scotland (but not the Ben)

Few countries can match Scotland for a landscape so wildly beautiful and dramatic; sweeping glens, rugged peaks, historic castles, and ancient forests make it an irresistible draw for hikers.  And even the notoriously fickle Scottish weather can’t detract from the hauntingly bleak splendour of the landscape.

The most mountainous terrain in the British and Irish Isles, Scotland has 282 munros, mountains over the magic 914 metres (3000′), named for Sir Hugh Munro, compiler of the first list, inspiring many hikers to “bag” the full set.  The best rank among some of the best mountains in the world.  The highest is Ben Nevis at 1345 metres (4412′).

But it isn’t essential to claim the highest summit to reap the rewards of hiking in Scotland.  With thousands of kilometres of coastline, hundreds of islands, lochs, and hills only lesser in height, not character or challenge.  Whichever routes you chose, you’ll be treated to fresh air life, spectacular views, and that feeling of freedom that comes with hiking in wild places.

And the best part is that this is so very accessible here in Scotland, and less than a couple of hours from the biggest cities and towns, it’s possible to feel a sense of remote wilderness.  So get your boots ready for these eight great day hikes, for whichever part of the country you’re visiting.  Or include them in your plans for a Scottish road trip.

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Photo Credit: colinemcbride Flickr on cc

Arthur’s Seat

  • Base: Edinburgh
  • Route length: 5 km (3 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

Right in the heart of Edinburgh, this hike rewards you with awesome panoramic views across Scotland’s capital city and beyond.  Overlooking Edinburgh Castle, the contrasting Old and New Towns, the Scottish Parliament, and down towards the port of Leith, this hike gives a snapshot of Scottish history and fits easily into a short break to Edinburgh.

The steep slopes of Arthur’s Seat, rising to 255 metres (824′), are the rugged remains of an ancient volcano; the same one that gave rise to the imposing rock on which the Castle sits and dominates the city centre.  Even though you’re never far from an urban street on this hike, don’t underestimate the terrain and be sure to wear suitable footwear.

This hike is also an excuse to take in the Sheep Heid Inn by Duddingston Loch, reputedly the oldest hostelry in Scotland, and where Mary, Queen of Scots used to enjoy the odd game of skittles.

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Photo Credit: Anne Young2014 Flickr on cc

Conic Hill

  • Base: Glasgow or Stirling
  • Route length: 4 km (2.5 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

This small but steep little summit is a perfect introduction to Scottish hillwalking.  Rising just 350 metres (1150′) above Balmaha, in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, the hike is just enough of an adventure for beginners, without being an exhausting expedition.  (Muddy puddles and trickling streams to explore, and a play area and public toilets in Balmaha also help to tempt families to try the route, and the Oak Tree Inn offers a rewarding brew afterwards.)

The ridgeline of Conic Hill follows the line of the Highland Boundary Fault, which also shows as the string of islands in the loch below.  As you ascend, the effort is rewarded with spectacular views across Loch Lomond and some of the grander mountains nearby,; such as Ben Lomond, the Cobbler (Ben Arthur), and the Arrochar Alps.

Conic Hill lies alongside the route of the West Highland Way long-distance trail between Milngavie and Fort William, so watching hikers striding up under big packs makes your daypack seem like nothing, and the challenge very achievable.

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Photo Credit: Alan Burkwood Flickr on cc

Loch an Eilein, Rothiemurchus Forest

  • Base: Aviemore
  • Route length: 7 km (4.5 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: easy

In the heart of Rothiemurchus Forest, in the Cairngorms National Park, the circular low-level hike around Loch an Eilein is stunningly beautiful, and a superb route for walking (or toddling) with the family.  Gnarled granny pines, dark mountains, and a ruined 13th-century castle are reflected in the waters of the loch that was once the secret hideaway of rogues and cattle rustlers.

The pinewoods are home to native wildlife such as red squirrels, crested tits, endemic Scottish crossbills, and the comical capercaillie, and when the sun goes down, pine martens and elusive Scottish wildcats stalk the woods.  The walk can be extended to take in Loch Gamhna, a quieter but muddier trail, or a short ascent to Ord Ban to drink in the spectacular views of the tundra-clad Cairn Gorm plateau, Caledonian pinewoods, and sparkling jewel-like lochs.

This might be one of the easier hikes on the list, but it will fulfil all your romantic dreams of Scotland, whether you’re Princess Merida saving the day or wishing for an encounter with a dashing highland warrior after falling through a hole in space-time.  And it gives you plenty of time to go for an ice cream in Miele’s Gelateria back in Aviemore at the end of the day.

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Photo Credit: agprysw Flickr on cc

Old Man of Hoy and Rackwick Glen

  • Base: Stromness, Orkney
  • Route length: 16.5 km (10.25 miles), or 9.25 km (5.75 miles) short option
  • Approximate hiking time: 5 hours
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

Hoy is the “high island” of Orkney, taking its name from Old Norse, and reflecting the wild, steep-sided hills and sheer sea cliffs, some of the most impressive in the British and Irish Isles.  In particular, the iconic sea stack is known as the Old Man of Hoy; its 137 metre (449′) walls were scaled live on the BBC back in the 1960s, and it continues to attract climbers today.

From the passenger ferry at Moaness, take the island minibus to the crofting township of Rackwick.  A well-defined path leads along the cliff tops, where you’ll catch sight of the stack rising out of the Pentland Firth, and, in the right season, the abundance of seabirds whirling around it; fulmars, kittiwakes, puffins, black guillemots, razorbills, and formidable bonxies (great skuas).  Look out for hunting peregrine falcons too.

On return to Rackwick, follow the road from the hostel to find the trail through Rackwick Glen.  Look out for Arctic skuas and Arctic terns, which may come closer than you’d like, and listen for the mournful calls of red-throated divers on Sandy Loch.   As well as birdlife, you can also expect to see a wealth of colourful wildflowers and the northernmost native woodland in the UK.  And if you time it well, you’ll catch the café for a cuppa and fancy piece in Moaness while you wait on your return ferry.

This hike has an option for a shorter walk, out and back to the Old Man from Rackwick only, taking the Hoy minibus to and from the ferry at Moaness.  Book your return with the driver, especially outside of the summer season.

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Photo Credit: pauldunn52 Flickr on cc

Stac Pollaidh (Stack Polly)

  • Base: Ullapool
  • Route length: 4.5 km (2.75 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 4 hours **
  • Difficulty: moderate to hard

Stac Pollaidh is only small in mountain terms, but it soars 612 metres (2008′) in splendid isolation over the flatlands of Assynt, the suddenness of its eruption from the emptiness creating an otherworldly feel in the landscape.  Its glacially smoothed flanks are topped with a distinctive rocky crest, carved into a series of pinnacles and steep gullies.

This is only a short hike, but the steep and winding trail is challenging, and the true summit at the western end of the ridge needs scrambling skills to reach.  But the effort is more than worth it, as the panoramic views from the ridge are spectacular.  To the south and west, you’ll see the rugged coastline around Achiltibuie and the Summer Isles, and to the north, across the wild watery wilderness of Inverpolly Nature Reserve, lie the unmistakable mountains of Suilven and Cùl Mòr.

Its easy roadside location has led to an erosion problem on the lower parts of the hill, so please stick to the surfaced trail to reach the higher ground.  The remote location means there’s no local pub or café to repair to at the end of the hike, so you could try Am Fuaran in Altandhu or the Ferry Boat Inn in Ullapool.

**Summer conditions

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Photo Credit: GDSinclair Flickr on cc

The Cobbler (Ben Arthur)

  • Base: Glasgow or Stirling
  • Route length: 11km (7 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 5 hours **
  • Difficulty: moderate to hard

Heading northwards, Loch Lomond crosses the Highland Boundary Fault and is squeezed between increasingly imposing mountains.  The Arrochar Alps on the western side are a group of very steep and rocky mountains with real character. The Cobbler, also known as Ben Arthur, is the most distinctive.

At 884 metres (2900′), it falls short of Munro status, but isn’t a small hill, and its otherworldly outline of rocky buttresses and rugged peak draws attention from its taller neighbours.  Dominating the skyline over Arrochar, the rocky summit is said to resemble a cobbler at work on his bench, giving the hill its popular nickname.

The true summit of the Cobbler is a rocky pinnacle, reached by squeezing through a triangular hole in the base on to a narrow, nerve-wracking ledge, in a move that’s known as threading the needle.  After traversing the ledge, there’s a short scramble to the top.  This isn’t for the faint-of-heart, and great care should be taken in wet conditions.

However, on a clear day, the views are just as impressive from the base of the pinnacle, looking out along Loch Long across the Arrochar Alps.  Be sure to glance back at the dramatic profile of the Cobbler on your descent, and end the day in Ben Arthur’s Bothy, soaking in the lochside views with your pint.

**Summer conditions

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Photo Credit: Robert F. Stokes Flickr on cc

Lochnagar

  • Base: Aberdeen
  • Route length: 19 km (12 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 7 hours **
  • Difficulty: hard

Immortalised in verse by Lord Byron as Dark Lochnagar, it is often considered to be one of the most beautiful of all Scottish mountains, although Queen Victoria had a different impression of the summit; “it was cold, wet and cheerless, and the wind was blowing a hurricane“; no doubt, she was not amused.

Lying entirely within the Royal Balmoral Estate, Lochnagar is best reached by hiking from Spital of Glenmuick, through ancient Caledonian pine forest and by hunting lodges favoured by royalty.  On the ascent to the plateau, it’s worth pausing at the bealach (narrow pass) before the boulder field known as the Ladder, to take in views of the northern corrie, an imposing rocky wall cradling a lochan in its curve.

The rocky outcrop of Cac Carn Beag, the true summit of Lochnagar, has spectacular panoramic views across Royal Deeside, the Cairngorms, and the Mounth.  A steep descent past Glas Allt falls leads to the Royal Lodge at Glas-allt-Shiel and the shore of Loch Muick.

The summit plateau has few distinctive features, and a steep northern edge, so excellent mountain navigation skills are needed in poor visibility conditions.  An alternative hike would be to follow the low-level circular trail around Loch Muick beloved of Queen Vic, in the shadow of the towering mountain cliffs, followed by a tour of Royal Lochnagar Distillery and a wee dram in the tasting rooms.

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Photo Credit: Hazel Strachan Flickr on cc

Ring of Steall, Mamores

  • Base: Fort William
  • Route length: 16km (10 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 12 hours **
  • Difficulty: very hard

Many visitors to Fort William will head straight for Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak at 1345 metres (4412′).  With over 125,000 hikers a year, mainly in the summer months, it can be incredibly busy on the trails.

Experienced mountain hikers might prefer the challenge of the Ring of Steall instead.  A classic mountain route, taking in four Munros; An Gearanach, Stob Choire a Chairn, Am Bodach and Sgurr a’Mhaim, with fantastic ridge walking between peaks.

The hike begins in Glen Nevis, following the trail through the woodland to the narrow Nevis Gorge and impressive Steall Falls.  Your first challenge is tackling the wire bridge spanning the river, before starting the ascent of An Gearanach.  All in all the hike has almost 1700 metres (5580′) of ascent, including some scrambling along narrow, rocky arêtes, and makes for a long, tiring day out.

The ridge is exposed but has spectacular panoramic views of some of the best known Scottish mountains, such as Aonach Mor, Aonach Eagach, Stob Ban, the Grey Corries, and of course, Ben Nevis.  Put your feet up and recharge at the end of the hike at the Ben Nevis Inn and Bunkhouse.

Those that can’t spare a whole day in the mountains will enjoy the short hike to the wire bridge and Steall Falls, which were seen in some film about a wizard.  Please note, the edges of the falls can be dangerous and warning signs should not be ignored.

**summer conditions

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Photo Credit: joannamarjaana Flickr on cc

My tips for day hikes in Scotland

Whether you choose to take on one of these day hikes, or one of the many others that Scotland has to offer, there are a few things that you should bear in mind.

  • Plan your route ahead of the walk.  Not every route is waymarked, so you need to form an idea of what to expect.  ViewRanger with Ordnance Survey Maps is invaluable for reading the terrain, and the Walk Highlands website has excellent route descriptions and photos.
  • Check the weather.  An essential part of preparation, and can be the difference between a rewarding hike or an endurance slog.  I like the Mountain Weather Information Service website and the Yr.no app.
  • Wear the right clothing, as in Scotland it’s entirely possible to experience all four seasons in one day.  Layering your clothes is important, and packing a waterproof jacket and trousers is always a good idea.
  • Pack plenty of water.  It’s important to stay hydrated during physical activity, and you may be out for longer than expected (or just want to make a nice cup of tea with a view while you’re out).
  • Take a map and compass when you head out; not all trails are clearly defined, and you may need to rely on navigation skills in poor visibility.  And GPS is not infallible.
  • If you’re hiking on your own, be sure to let someone know where you’re going, when you plan to return, and when you’re back safely.

Have a look at my packing list for day hikes for some additional tips on what to take.

Winter hiking

Winter hiking in Scotland is a serious business.  Although the hills aren’t that high, conditions can be gnarly and there are many additional hazards you might encounter.  It’s important to be properly prepared, and that can mean taking an ice-axe and crampons, and having the skills and experience to use them.

It also means spending additional time assessing information about your chosen route; mountain weather, reduced daylight hours, the terrain and underfoot conditions, and avalanche forecasts.  And remember that sometimes the best decision you make is the one to turn back.

What is your favourite day hike in Scotland?
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What I loved this season: Spring 2019

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done:

Freelance work kept me busy through March, but I was able to spend a week away in the South Downs National Park leading a walking holiday.  Wild, windy weather made some of the routes quite challenging, but I was excited to explore a new area.  My favourite walks were on the downs around Arundel, and along the Cuckmere valley to the famous Seven Sisters viewpoint.

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The famous Seven Sisters view from just above the Coastguard Cottages on Seaford Head.

At the beginning of April, I moved south to Devon, to start work as part of the crew of the traditional sailing ketch Irene of Bridgwater.  We spent the first part of the season based out of Dartmouth, visiting the nearby ports of Brixham and Salcombe regularly, with a one-off trip to Weymouth, where we disappeared into the fog.  Taking the lookout on the bow with only around 20 metres visibility, in a 38 metre (124′) ship, is one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve done.

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Leading the way out of Weymouth harbour in the fog in the tender, with Irene following close behind.

If you ever plan to visit Dartmouth, be aware that it’s much easier to reach with a boat than on public transport or even by car.  As soon as my leave began in May, it was a rush to head north.  I had to pick up my backpacking kit and make my way to Oban, the starting point I’d chosen for the TGO Challenge.

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A glorious day to go for a walk.  Starting the TGO Challenge in Oban on the 11th of May.

I’d prepared a route to cross Scotland from Oban to my parent’s house on the east coast, planning to walk around 270km (170 miles) in 10 days, before I had to return to the ship at the end of my leave.  The first six days were hot and dry, entirely not what I’d expected for a trekking and camping trip in the highlands.  In fact, I had so much trouble with being out in the direct sunlight for so many hours a day that I switched around my rest days in Pitlochry to buy factor Scots sunblock and a pair of shorts.

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The view from the western shoulder of Schiehallion, looking back along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and the Black Corries.

The second week was much more as I’d expected, with cooler temperatures and drizzle that actually felt refreshing rather than miserable.  I added another rest day to my schedule, as I’d extended my leave for an extra week, so was able to take my time and fit my walking around the weather conditions.  It also meant I was able to catch up with a number of other Challengers in Tarfside on Tuesday night, which has the reputation of being a fun night, and definitely lived up to it.  You can read more about my TGO challenge adventure here.

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In the col between Dreish and Mayar in poor visibility, about to descend into Glen Doll after an extremely long and tiring day.

Following the TGO Challenge, at the end of May, I had a few days in Northamptonshire taking part in the selection process for what could be some very exciting work in the winter.  As a job interview, it was one of the best and most inspiring I’d ever been to, and the highlight was meeting a group of awesome people that were also on the shortlist.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but competition will be stiff.

My spring love list:

  • Books: I’ve found it hard finding the time to pick up a book in the last couple of months, usually just managing a few pages in bed at the end of a long day.  But I did finish a couple of books: Tristimania by Jay Griffiths, about her experiences with bipolar disorder, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson, the account of an awesome expedition across the Australian desert by camel in the late 1970s.
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Tracks is one of the best books I’ve read, and I thoroughly recommend you pick up a copy.
  • Podcast: I’ve just discovered the wonderful Ologies podcast by Alie Ward, and never before have I known so much about squid.  And I thought I knew a fair bit about squid.  I’ve even been to visit Te Papa in Wellington SPECIFICALLY to see the colossal squid.
  • Clothing: I was desperately in need of a good pair of hiking pants for the TGO Challenge, and took a punt on the Alpkit Chilkoot softshell pants.  My only criticism on them was that they were TOO WARM for the ridiculously hot weather over the first week of the TGO, and I hadn’t bought any shorts with me.
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After ending up thigh-deep in a bog, again, the Alpkit Chilkoot dried quickly and didn’t have their stretchiness compromised by the crispiness of embedded dried peat.
  • Equipment: I’m still not completely enamoured of my Wild Country Zephyros 1 tent; I think I’m just not getting something right with tensioning the flysheet.  I didn’t encounter high winds during the TGO fortunately,  so I’ve got to keep trying to figure it out.
  • However, I absolutely love my Leki Makalu hiking poles.  They proved themselves to be essential during the TGO, especially for hauling myself out of various bogs, over peat hags, and supporting my knees on steep descents.  Do you hike with poles? This post has a few reasons why you should give it a go.
  • Treats: Not so much of a treat as a staple part of my TGO challenge diet: crunchy peanut butter, eaten straight out of the jar with my spork. 
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We joined the crew of Provident for the day to help move their ship from Dartmouth back to their base in Brixham.
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Traditional Brixham Trawlers like Provident often had red sails, coated in ochre to protect them from the sun and salt.

What’s next:

With the TGO Challenge done and dusted, it’s back to work on Irene.  We’ll be based out of Oban, sailing around the islands of the Inner Hebrides and taking our guests kayaking and walking.  I hope it will also mean we’ll get plenty of fresh seafood on our menu too.  I’ll also have a bit of time in my next leave to explore the islands on my own, and can’t wait to get to know this area much better.

Then we’ll relocate south to be based out of Newlyn, with sailing voyages planned to Brittany and the Scilly Isles.  I’m really excited about the Scillies, somewhere I’ve never been to before but heard lots of good things about.  And I should have the opportunity to spend a bit of time in Cornwall walking the coastal path and swimming in the sea.

Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.

You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Here’s to fair seas and following winds.

Read about what I got up to through the winter here.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to in spring, or any plans you have for the summer. 
Let me know in the comments below.

 

This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

10 of Scotland’s Greatest Long Distance Trails

You could walk for 500 miles, and then you would walk for 500 more. That’s just how beautiful Scotland is.  Wide-open moors, historic castles, picturesque lochs (what we call lakes) ancient forests, and sweeping mountains are the hauntingly beautiful backdrop for some of the finest long-distance walks in the UK.

But enough havering; Scotland’s long-distance routes are a fantastic way to get outdoors, and explore some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes on foot.  Not only that, you’ll also be treated to close encounters with nature, the freshest air, and the freedom that comes with being out in wild and remote areas.

Just because these routes take multiple days to complete, don’t be put off by the thought of not having enough time.  The trails don’t have to be completed in one go and can be broken down into bite-sized chunks to fit into weekends and single days that are just as enjoyable.

Here are, in my opinion, the greatest of the long-distance trails in Scotland.  The routes vary greatly in character, from waymarked cross-country trails like the ever-popular West Highland Way to unofficial, often pathless, challenges aimed at experienced backpackers, like the Cape Wrath Trail.

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Buachaille Etive Mòr, at the head of Glen Etive, has one of the most distinctive mountain profiles in Scotland. Photo Credit: Phelan Goodman Flickr on cc

The West Highland Way (WHW)

  • Start: Milngavie
  • Finish: Fort William
  • Length: 154 km (96 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 7 days
  • Difficulty: moderate (Devil’s Staircase is hard)

The first, and far away most famous, long-distance trail in Scotland, the WHW stretches from Milngavie, on the edge of Glasgow, to Fort William, dubbed Scotland’s outdoor adventure capital, 154km (96 miles) to the north.

The route crosses the rolling Campsie Fells into Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, following the bonnie banks of the loch into the increasingly craggy highlands.  It crosses the starkly beautiful Rannoch Moor into atmospheric Glencoe, before climbing to the highest point of the trail, the Devil’s Staircase, and onward to finish at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British and Irish Isles.

The route is well waymarked, and has plenty of opportunities for re-supply stops, tearooms, and pubs on the way, with Kingshouse the most popular.  Hiking is easy going for the main part, and largely avoids the high ground; Ben Lomond and Ben Lui, in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Black Mount and the Mamores can be added to the route, and it can finish with the summit of Ben Nevis (1334 metres) if your legs feel up to it.

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The Commando Memorial between Spean Bridge and Gairlochy commemorates the elite Allied forces trained in the area during WWII. Photo Credit: Phelan Goodman Flickr on cc

Great Glen Way (GGW)

  • Start: Fort William
  • Finish: Inverness
  • Length: 117 km (73 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 6 days
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

Tracing the major geological faultline that cleaves Scotland in two, the GGW links the highland towns of Fort William and Inverness, largely following a string of lochs linked by the Caledonian Canal.

The faultline divides the Grampian Mountains to the south from the Northwestern Highlands, some of the oldest rocks in the world.  Starting in Fort William, the route passes Neptune’s Staircase, an impressive flight of locks built by engineer Thomas Telford linking the Canal to Loch Linnhe and the sea. It follows the lengths of Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness* on forestry roads, before passing the pretty Isles of Ness and finishing in Inverness city centre.

The route is well waymarked, and the hiking is straightforward throughout, though it gets steep in the forests over Loch Ness.  Between Fort Augustus and Drumnadrochit there is a high-level alternate route, which has spectacular views over Loch Ness and along the rest of the Great Glen.  It can connect with the West Highland Way in Fort William.

*Bring some monster spotting binoculars, and you might be rewarded with sightings of anything from red squirrels to red deer, ospreys and even otters.

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The picturesque harbour in the village of Portpatrick on the Rhinns of Galloway. Photo Credit: RobinD_UK Flickr on cc

Southern Upland Way (Scotland’s Coast to Coast)

  • Start: Portpatrick
  • Finish: Cockburnspath
  • Length: approximately 341km (211 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 14 days +
  • Difficulty: hard

The longest of Scotland’s great trails, and the original coast to coast walk, this trail starts in the pretty village of Portpatrick on the west coast and finishes on the North Sea coast in Cockburnspath.

The route follows forestry trails through the Galloway Forest Park, famed for its dark skies, and into the open moorland and rugged hills of the Southern Uplands.  It passes through the highest settlements of Scotland, the border towns and villages of Sanquhar, Wanlockhead, Beattock and Traquair in the Tweedsmuir Hills, and into the Lammermuir Hills before descending to the coast.

The route is waymarked but involves long moorland crossings which can be tricky to navigate in poor visibility.  Stages between resupply points can be long, and facilities are far apart, so this is better suited to more experienced backpackers.

For real hardcore hikers, the Southern Upland Way is part of the E2 European long-distance trail which runs for 4850km (3010 miles) between Galway on the Atlantic coast of Ireland and Nice, on the Mediterranean.

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Craigellachie Bridge over the River Spey.  A Scottish country dance tune was composed in its honour; appropriately its a strathspey.  Photo Credit: Junnn Flickr on cc

Speyside Way

  • Start: Aviemore
  • Finish: Buckie
  • Length: approximately 116km (72 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 6 days
  • Difficulty: moderate

This route traces the course of the mighty River Spey from Cairngorms National Park to Spey Bay, where the river meets the sea.  Most descriptions of the Speyside Way describe the route sea to source, ending in the heart of the mountains, but I think there’s something in going with the flow of the river.

Historically, the river was used to transport timber from the pine forests around Aviemore and Abernethy to the shipbuilding industry based around the village of Garmouth, once a rival to the major British port of Hull.  But for most the main draw for this trail is the famous whiskies**, the most well-known worldwide, that originate on the banks of the Spey.

Highlights of the route include Abernethy National Nature Reserve, where bogs, lochans, and pine forest are a haven for native wildlife, the impressive Craigellachie Bridge, built by Thomas Telford, and the Moray Firth Wildlife Centre, one of the best shore-based dolphin watching opportunities in the world.

**Try sampling Aberlour, Balvenie, Craigellachie, Dufftown, Glenfiddich, Knockando, Macallan, Speyside, Tamnavoulin, and you’ll forget that the alphabet has other letters too.

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Traigh Seilebost is just one of the stunning sandy beaches on the west coast of Harris. Photo Credit: isleofharris365 Flickr on cc

Hebrides Way

  • Start: Vatersay
  • Finish: Stornoway, Lewis
  • Length: approximately 252km (156 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 12 days +
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

The newest long-distance trail in Scotland, this route connects 10 spectacularly beautiful islands in the Hebridean archipelago, from Vatersay in the south to Lewis in the north, with two ferry crossings and six interisland causeways, on the wild fringes of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Gaelic culture of the islands is framed by the distinctive landscapes; stunning silver beaches and flower-filled machair, wild moors and mountains, remote crofts and tiny fishing villages, places where both recent history and ancient archaeology lie close to the surface.  Look out for wildlife as spectacular as your surroundings, like minke whales, white-tailed sea eagles, and some of the most scarce birds in Britain, like the elusive corncrake.

The most challenging part of the trail follows waymarks on an undefined path across the open moorland of the North Harris Hills and could be tricky in poor visibility, but on the whole, hiking is easy going and suitable for beginners.  It’s worth making some extra time to spend on the islands alongside completing the hike.

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Dunaverty Bay at the southern tip of Kintyre may have been where St Columba first arrived in Scotland. Photo Credit: Photographic View Scotland Flickr on cc

Kintyre Way

  • Start: Tarbert
  • Finish: Machrihanish
  • Length: approximately 161km (100 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 7 days
  • Difficulty: moderate to hard

Zigzagging back and forth across the Kintyre Peninsula, this trail starts in the picturesque fishing village of Tarbert in the north and winds its way to the windswept beach at Machrihanish, which lies closer to Belfast than to Glasgow.

Although Kintyre is part of the mainland, the sea is never far away on this trail, and it has stunning island views of Jura, Arran, Islay, Gigha, and even Rathlin Island.  You’re sure to hear the legend of Somerled (Somhairle), the Gaelic Viking King of the Isles, that claimed the land as his own by portaging his ships across the narrow isthmus between the sea lochs at Tarbert.

The trail is well waymarked for most of its length, with easy-going walking, though the last section of the trail beyond Campbeltown has steep ascents and descents, tricky navigation, and boggy conditions underfoot.

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The Cateran Trail connects villages and glens on old drove roads and trails used by cattle rustlers. Photo Credit: luckypenguin Flickr on cc

Cateran Trail

  • Start/Finish: Blairgowrie or Alyth
  • Length: approximately 104km (65 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 5 days
  • Difficulty: moderate

Not as well known as some of the other Great Trails, this is a circular route through the wild upland glens of Angus and Perthshire, taking in Strathardle, Glen Shee and Glen Isla, once lawless bandit country.  There is no official start/finish point, but the pretty towns of Blairgowrie and Alyth have good access to the trail, and it is usually walked in a clockwise direction.

The route follows ancient drove roads used to take cattle to the market towns of Alyth and Blairgowrie, and by the Caterans, 16th and 17th-century cattle raiders, who give their name to the trail.

The trail is well waymarked, and the moorland hiking at a moderate level.  There are several small settlements on the route, with pubs, cafes and resupply stops.  A link route between Kirkmichael (Strathardle) and Cray (Glen Shee) gives the option of a shorter two-day circuit.  The route is waymarked but undefined, and both parts of the trail can be rough and very muddy.

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Loch Tay is was the location of as many as 18 crannogs, artificial islands inhabited from the Bronze Age.  A reconstruction lies on the southern shore of the loch.  Photo Credit: Douglas Hamilton ( days well spent ) Flickr on cc

Rob Roy Way

  • Start: Drymen
  • Finish: Pitlochry
  • Length: 128km (80miles), alternative route via Amulree 155km
  • Average time to complete: 6 days (alternative route 7 days)
  • Difficulty: moderate to hard

Another route inspired by rogues and reivers, the Rob Roy Way links Drymen, on the edge of Loch Lomond (and the WHW), and Pitlochry.  Taking in the rolling hills of the Trossachs, through forests and into Breadalbane, passing lochs and waterfalls, and on into Strathtay.

The route visits the pretty highland towns of Callender, Killin, and Aberfeldy, and Balquidder, the site of Rob Roy’s family home.  A Jacobite who fought alongside Bonnie Dundee, he, and the rest of Clan McGregor, were outlawed and compelled to renounce their name and allegiance or be hunted out with hounds and killed.

The route follows tracks, minor roads, cycle trails, and footpaths, with a fair amount of ascent and descent.  The alternative route via Amulree is much quieter, and avoids an 8km section on minor roads on the south of Loch Tay.  Both options have spectacular views across to Ben Lawers and Schiehallion on a fine day.

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Trotternish Ridge and the Quiraing are formed from a series of landslips, creating an awesome landscape. Photo Credit: Bill Higham Flickr on cc

Skye Trail

  • Start: Rubha Hunish, near Duntulum
  • Finish: Broadford
  • Length: approximately 128km (80 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 7 days
  • Difficulty: very hard

Starting from the most northerly point of the island, Rubha Hunish, the route ascends steeply under the Quiraing to the Trotternish Ridge.  The ridge traverse is very long and exposed, but is one of the most outstanding ridge walks anywhere in the world.

After following the cliffs from Storr, the route goes via Portree and Glen Sligachan to Elgol and Torrin, finishing in Broadford. It passes the locations of several clearance villages, tumbledown reminders that these quiet glens were once home to hundreds of people, and around the spectacular Cuillin mountains.

The trail is unofficial, unmarked, and arduous, and many sections lack a distinct path.  It requires excellent navigation skills, and involves challenging burn crossings that are not possible when in spate.  The route includes a long ridge traverse and clifftop walking not suited to those without a head for heights.

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Cape Wrath, or Am Parbh, is the most northwesterly point of mainland Britain, and much of the area is used for military training.  Photo Credit: tomdebruycker Flickr on cc

Cape Wrath Trail

  • Start: Fort William
  • Finish: Cape Wrath
  • Length: Between 320 and 370km (200 and 230 miles)
  • Average time to complete:
  • Difficulty: very hard

The Cape Wrath Trail is an epic route, leading from Fort William, through some of the wildest and most remote parts of Scotland, to the northwesternmost tip of mainland Britain.

Potential highlights of the route include crossing the Rough Bounds of Knoydart, the Falls of Glomachand and Eas a’ Chual Aluinn (the highest waterfalls in the UK), Fisherfield Forest, the caves around Inchnadamph, and the spectacular beaches at Oldshoremore and Sandwood Bay.

With no official route, and several potential options taking you through Knoydart, Torridon, and Assynt, it isn’t waymarked and many sections don’t have a defined path.  It is suitable for backpackers with excellent navigation skills, the ability to be self-sufficient, and wild camping experience.

Things to know before attempting a long-distance hike in Scotland

  • Weather

The Big Yin*** once said that “there are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter”.  But even the notoriously changeable weather can’t spoil the hauntingly beautiful landscapes you’ll walk through.  Be sure you’re adequately prepared; check long-range forecasts and monitor the weather during your hike, pack sufficient warm layers and waterproof jacket and trousers, and know your route well enough to identify wet weather alternatives and bail-out points.

***That’s Billy Connolly if you didn’t know.  Or Sir William Connolly CBE, if we’re going to be formal.  Which he famously isn’t.

  • Wild Camping

There will be a range of different options for accommodation on most of the trails listed above, from bunkhouses and bothies to boutique hotels and guesthouses.  But for staying as close to the trail as possible and maximising time outdoors, you might choose to wild camp (I usually do).

Wild camping is permitted in Scotland, with the notable exception of the east side of Loch Lomond (on the WHW) during summer months.  You must be familiar with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and follow leave no trace principles.

  • Wildlife

We don’t have some of the large wildlife of our neighbours in northern Scandinavia or central Europe to worry about, and you should try to avoid causing any disturbance to habitats or creatures as you follow the trails or camp.

Scottish midges have a fearsome reputation, and it’s well deserved.  May and September are usually the best months for avoiding the wee beasties but still getting the best of the weather.  Otherwise pack a repellent, especially for dawn and dusk, and just after rain showers.

  • Winter

Winter hiking in Scotland is serious, and brings several additional hazards to the hikes.  Some of the trails above will be inaccessible to all but the most experienced backpackers.  It is important to be properly prepared, and that can mean taking an ice-axe and crampons, and having the skills and experience to use them correctly.

It also means taking additional time to assess your chosen route; researching mountain weather, taking account of reduced daylight hours, the terrain and underfoot conditions, and avalanche forecasts.  And remember that sometimes the best decision you make is to postpone the hike for another day.

Have you tried hiking any of these trails?  Have you got any tips?
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Photo Journal: Oostende Voor Anker

I’ve always had quite a fondness for working ports and harbours, and how the concrete quays and non-descript marinas are transformed for a few days every year when the port hosts a maritime festival, lifeboat gala day, or traditional boat show.

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A view of the harbour from alongside the Spanish tall ship Atyla.

Railings are decked with bunting; boats cram into the harbour, showing their dressed overall flags; stalls demonstrating traditional maritime crafts, or hawking food and drink line the quaysides; and from somewhere, shanty singers assemble.  The air is filled with the scent of Stockholm tar and smoked seafood, and the sound of fiddles and accordions.

Every May, the Belgian coastal resort and port of Ostend celebrates the maritime heritage of the North Sea, hosting traditional and classic sailing vessels from around Europe at the Oostende Voor Anker maritime festival (Ostend at Anchor in English).

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The Dutch steamship Hydrograaf, a former naval hydrographic survey vessel.
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Hundreds of boats decked in dressed over all flags lining the dock basin.
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Masts and rigging alongside the buildings of the city.
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The Russian square-rigger Shtandart at the heart of the lock basin in Ostend.

The festival takes place each year from a Thursday to a Sunday towards the end of May, depending on the tides, with vessels arriving into port in the preceding days.  From class A square riggers to the traditional barges that plied the coastal and inland waterways of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, over 150 vessels participate in the festival.

 

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Preparing sides of salmon for woodsmoking over an open fire.
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Later, the smoked salmon is ready to eat.
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Natural cord ready to be made into rope.
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A traditional basketmaker making skeps from twisted straw.

A large part of Oostende Voor Anker celebrates  traditional craftsmanship, with a festival village filled with venues to find out more about boat-building and sail making.  A variety of stalls also sell local goods and produce, including what every sailor needs, a vast selection of striped Breton shirts.  I may even have picked up a souvenir or two as I browsed through.

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Blacksmith at work.
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Lines, sheets, halyards, lifts, stays, cables, but no ropes.
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Racks of oilskins for sale.
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With a striped Breton shirt you won’t look out of place wandering around.
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Traditional Flanders smoked herrings prepared during the day.

As well as open ship tours, demonstrations and stalls, the festival also features things like walking theatre performances, musical concerts, food and cookery demonstrations, arts installations, and nautical themed talks.

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An Atyla crewmember on the bagpipes.
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Shanty singers warming up for a performance.
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Fresh Flemish oysters for sale, with a little champagne on the side.
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Flag dancers take over a junction in the city centre.
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Cadets from the Royal Belgian Sea Cadet Corps demonstrate sea survival.
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A sea survival demonstration in the harbour

My festival tips for Oostende Voor Anker

  • Avoid taking a car if you’re travelling from out of town.  Ostend has excellent rail and coach connections to Antwerp, Brussels, and beyond, and the station is close to the festival area.  The Belgian Coastal Tram is another travel alternative.
  • Wear shoes suitable for walking, as it’s likely you’ll do much more than you anticipate!  High heels can cause damage to the decking timbers on ships, and you may be asked to remove unsuitable shoes if you take a deck tour.
  • Pick up a festival guide as soon as you can.  It will have an event map and programme of activities to help you plan your day and find your way around.
  • Bring cash as some vendors won’t accept card payment.
  • Book your local accommodation early, as the festival is very popular.
  • The next Oostende Voor Anker festival takes place on 23-26 May 2019.
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Excelsior of Lowestoft leaving the basin in Ostend for the Parade of Sail. 
Do you enjoy visiting maritime festivals?  Have you ever been to Ostend?
Let me know your stories in the comments below.
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